For 18 minutes in April, China’s state-controlled telecommunications company hijacked 15 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, including data from U.S. military, civilian organizations and those of other U.S. allies.
This massive redirection of data has received scant attention in the mainstream media because the mechanics of how the hijacking was carried out and the implications of the incident are difficult for those outside the cybersecurity community to grasp, said a top security expert at McAfee, the world’s largest dedicated Internet security company.
In short, the Chinese could have carried out eavesdropping on unprotected communications — including emails and instant messaging — manipulated data passing through their country or decrypted messages, Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research at McAfee said.
Nobody outside of China can say, at least publicly, what happened to the terabytes of data after the traffic entered China.
The incident may receive more attention when the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional committee, releases its annual report on the bilateral relationship Nov. 17. A commission press release said the 2010 report will address “the increasingly sophisticated nature of malicious computer activity associated with China.”
Said Alperovitch: “This is one of the biggest — if not the biggest hijacks — we have ever seen.” And it could happen again, anywhere and anytime. It’s just the way the Internet works, he explained. “What happened to the traffic while it was in China? No one knows.”
The telephone giants of the world work on a system based on trust, he explained. Machine-to-machine interfaces send out messages to the Internet informing other service providers that they are the fastest and most efficient way for data packets to travel. For 18 minutes April 8, China Telecom Corp. told many ISPs of the world that its routes were the best paths to send traffic.
For example, a person sending information from Arlington, Va., to the White House in Washington, D.C. — only a few miles away — could have had his data routed through China. Since traffic moves around the world in milliseconds, the computer user would not have noticed the delay.
This happens accidentally a few times per year, Alperovitch said. What set this incident apart from other such mishaps was the fact that China Telecom could manage to absorb this large amount of data and send it back out again without anyone noticing a disruption in service. In previous incidents, the data would have reached a dead end, and users would not have been able to connect.
Also, the list of hijacked data just happened to include preselected destinations around the world that encompassed military, intelligence and many civilian networks in the United States and other allies such as Japan and Australia, he said. “Why would you keep that list?” Alperovitch asked.
The incident involved 15 percent of Internet traffic, he stressed. The amount of data included in all these packets is difficult to calculate. The data could have been stored so it could be examined later, he added. “Imagine the capability and capacity that is built into their networks. I’m not sure there was anyone else in the world who could have taken on that much traffic without breaking a sweat,” Alperovitch said.
McAfee has briefed U.S. government officials on the incident, but they were not alarmed. They said their Internet communications are encrypted. However, encryption also works on a basis of trust, McAfee experts pointed out. And that trust can be exploited.
Internet encryption depends on two keys. One key is private and not shared, and the other is public, and is embedded in most computer operating systems. Unknown to most computer users, Microsoft, Apple and other software makers embed the public certificates in their operating systems. They also trust that this system won’t be abused.
Among the certificates is one from the China Internet Information Center, an arm of the China’s Ministry of Information and Industry.
“If China telecom intercepts that [encrypted message] and they are sitting on the middle of that, they can send you their public key with their public certificate and you will not know any better,” he said. The holder of this certificate has the capability to decrypt encrypted communication links, whether it’s web traffic, emails or instant messaging, Alperovitch said. “It is a flaw in the way the Internet operates,” said Yoris Evers, director of worldwide public relations at McAfee.
No one outside of China can say whether any of these potentially nefarious events occurred, Alperovitch noted. “It did not make mainstream news because it is so esoteric and hard to understand,” he added. It is not defined as a cyberattack because no sites were hacked or shut down. “But it is pretty disconcerting.”
And the hijacking took advantage of the way the Internet operates. “It can happen again. They can do it tomorrow or they can do it in an hour. And the same problem will occur again.”CLARIFICATION: Alperovitch in a McAfee blog has clarified that 15 percent of the world's routes were directed to China, not 15 percent of the traffic. In an earlier interview he stated: “In terms of the overall traffic they took, it’s very hard to estimate, but it was a lot more than 15 percent of the world’s traffic [that] their pipes were able to handle without crashing.”
Read more about the increasingly sophisticated nature of cyberespionage and attacks in the January issue of National Defense Magazine.